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Ornamental Maestro

Tuesday, December 1, 2009
filed under: Hybrid Selection/Planting

Dr. Tom Heaton could be a poster boy for the society of peoples who “Turned My Hobby into a Successful Business.”

In his case, that business is the breeding, production and wholesaling of ornamental sunflower varieties for the cut flower and home garden markets. Heaton has been successful to the point where his firm is the global leader in the production of ornamental sunflower seeds. Varieties he has developed are sold to hundreds of retail flower seed companies worldwide. In the United States alone, they account for nearly three-fourths of the ornamental sunflower seed market. Most people, especially those in urban areas, first become familiar with sunflower as an ornamental plant by seeing it in bouquet or growing in a backyard garden.

Even with this success, breeding and producing ornamentals constitutes only a minority of Heaton’s professional pursuits. About 70% of his work consists of breeding confection and oil-type sunflower hybrids for licensing to commercial seed companies in the United States and China. “Snack and oilseed sunflower carries the load,” he states. “The ornamental is extra.”

The Woodland, Calif., plant breeder has been working with sunflower since 1976, the year he joined Pacific Oilseeds, Inc., as a postdoctoral student out of the University of California-Davis. After several years at POI, he joined Calgene as that company’s plant breeding director. In 1984 he became a sunflower breeder with Pioneer Hi-Bred International at Woodland. Ten years later, he left Pioneer to form his own company.

Heaton started working with ornamentals in 1976 as a hobby. “Then, in 1994 when I went out on my own, I continued to grow [ornamentals] and decided to turn my hobby into a business,” he recounts. His ornamental entity, which goes by the name NuFlowers LLC, supplies professional cut flower growers as well as garden hobbyists. (NuFlowers’ sister company, Flower Genetics LLC, is Heaton’s confection and oil-type breeding entity. His ornamental seeds are sold wholesale by a British-based company, SeedSense, Ltd., and NuFlowers also is about to launch its own ornamentals retail site:

“I’m one of the few ‘cross-over’ plant breeders who does both agriculture and horticulture,” Heaton says. “Flower seed companies are very different from agricultural companies. We send them samples; they look at the flowers and order seed. There are no strip trials or yield trials. It’s all based on the flower's appeal.”

When breeding ornamentals for the cut flower market, the focus is on novelty — mainly in color and petal shape. “A lot of the cut flower concerns have to do with transportation [i.e.], when they cut the flowers and ship them — especially if they are professional growers,” Heaton explains. “The flower has to have certain kinds of petals so it ships well. And it must have a good ‘vase life' with an ability to rehydrate easily.”

For example, Mexico’s Baja California peninsula is a popular location for the growing of ornamentals for the cut flower market in the winter. Heaton says 100,000 stems may be harvested weekly there for export to U.S. locations. “They’ll cut them, give them certain [preservative] treatments, put them in cold storage; then pull them out, rehydrate, and move them to the markets when they’re needed,” he illustrates. That process may take up to 12 or 13 days — and the flowers must look as good on the day they arrive at their destination as they did on the day they were cut.

Unlike oil and confection hybrid seed development, ornamental breeders are not concerned with seed yield or oil content. Instead, the focus is on traits like: does the variety have the right petals; are they the right color and the right shape; do they overlap? Professional ornamental growers prefer overlapping petals, Heaton explains, because “if the flower loses a petal, it still looks good. So usually you try to get two layers of petals on the flower.”

Heaton possesses the most extensive collection of ornamental sunflower lines and traits in the world — a collection built up across more than three decades. The ornamental seeds are grown at 15 isolation sites scattered around California’s Sacramento Valley, as well as in isolation cages located at his 18-acre breeding nursery. The harvested seeds are hand cleaned, packaged and shipped from a warehouse near Woodland. “But it’s a small operation (compared to oil and confection sunflower seed production),” Heaton remarks. “You don’t ship off pallets of ornamentals; you ship off five-pound bags.

“There have been times I’ve grown 10 acres and harvested only 50 pounds,” he adds. “Pretty expensive seed!”

NuFlowers’ most popular ornamental is “ProCut Orange,” which sports orange petals and a black center. While many of his varieties (Heaton presently has 60 on the market) clearly look like a sunflower, others look more like a carnation, dahlia or another flower species. All NuFlowers varieties are annuals, and all are pollen free. Since they thus don't shed pollen, it’s easier to bring them into the home — and they retain a longer vase life.

Shifting gears, Heaton asks, “Do you know what the number-one selling garden packet seed in the world is?” It is, he answers, the giant sunflower. “Everyone who plants a garden plants a sunflower because they want to see how big and tall it will become.” NuFlowers sells two giant varieties: the “American Giant” hybrid, which can stretch upward as high as 17 feet, and “Kong,” a branching giant hybrid. At the other extreme, he has developed garden varieties so short they can be grown in a small pot.

NuFlowers supplies more than 300 companies worldwide with ornamental sunflower seeds. About one-third of the volume is for the North American market, another third goes to Europe, and the final third ends up in Asia. Among the many domestic retailers of NuFlowers-originated seed are such giants as Gurneys, Burpee, Walmart, Home Depot, Lowe’s, True Value and Ace Hardware.

Not too bad for a self-described “sideline business” . . .

More details on NuFlowers ornamental sunflower are available at — Don Lilleboe
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